Monday Morning Art School: saving a so-so painting

You like it, but there’s something just not exactly right. Or you’re not sure you like it at all.

Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando, 1879, Edgar Degas National Gallery, London. How does pattern and repetition hold this painting together?
Last week I went through a collection of paintings belonging to another artist. “Pull out the ones that I should burn,” she said. There were almost none in that category. In fact, most of them were quite lovely.
Of the ones that weren’t, most were promising starts that either fizzled or were never finished. “You can fix this very easily,” I kept saying. Of about 75 small paintings she brought, only a very few were consigned to the burn pile. Most of them needed a simple fix: a passage lightened, an edge softened, or a focal point developed. All she needed was to have those pointed out.
The next day, my student Dave went through my slush pile during a break. It’s huge; it has hundreds of paintings in it. “I love this,” he kept saying. “Why don’t you like this?”
Crucifixion of St. Peter, 1600, Caravaggio, Cerasi Chapel, Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome. In chiaroscuro, value creates volume. How did Caravaggio drive us back through space in this painting?
I don’t not like them, I told him; I just don’t feel like selling them. I almost never wipe out work that’s not finished or not what I’d envisioned. They go on shelves in my studio. Occasionally, I will sell these paintings for rock-bottom prices, but mostly they’re there for my edification. Occasionally, I’ll notice something I really like and pull it out and study it, both for what’s working and what isn’t working.
Everyone has problem paintings. Often, I discover a year or two later that what I thought was a problem was actually a roadmap. It was a precursor to where I was headed as a painter. In some cases, all these paintings need is varnish to bring up the color and they sing. Or, they may need revision.
Michael tramples Satan, 1636, Guido Reni, Santa Maria della Concezione church, Rome. How does line drive you through this painting?
Last week, I wrote about the five basic elements of painting design. The best way to rescue a so-so painting is to subject it to formal analysis. That doesn’t mean you have to write a dissertation about it. It means you consider your painting in terms of each of these design elements. Are you using line, shape, space, color and texture to guide the viewer through the space you’ve created? Have you emphasized important passages and subordinated others? Is there repetition, pattern and rhythm in the piece?
A painting that doesn’t work almost always fails in several of these areas. You are as qualified as anyone to analyze your paintings based on these objective standards. There’s a great advantage in learning to do this: you will never be led astray be a stupid critique again. (I once ruined a wonderful painting by following bad advice, made worse because I’d paid for it.)
Le Wagon de troisième classe (The third-class carriage), 1864, Honoré Daumier, Metropolitan Museum of Art. This has nothing to do with the subject of this post; it’s just how I feel when flying.
We recently did this exercise in my Rockport painting class. In my experience, amateurs fixate on mark-making to the exclusion of far more important qualities in painting. They’re so worried about their handwriting that they fail to see the bigger picture. My students walked away from this exercise with the objective knowledge that they were doing better than they thought. I think you will, too.
I would have illustrated this with some of my flubs, but I’m traveling today without access to my server. I’m off to Pecos, NM, to paint snow.